the horizon darkens for Fabio Quartararo, in search of a second world title

At the Austrian Grand Prix on August 21, 2022, Italian Francesco Bagnaia celebrates his victory in front of Frenchman Fabio Quartararo.

They are two for a crown. The title of 2022 MotoGP world champion should go either to Fabio “El Diablo” Quartararo, on Yamaha, or to the Italian Francesco “Pecco” Bagnaia, leader of the Ducati clan. If the Niçois is now at the top of the championship standings, his lead is melting like snow in the sun. After a failed start to the season, his rival has just won the last four Grands Prix and many observers now make him their favorite for the world title.

Last season, the regularity of the French had allowed him to get ahead of the Italian, and to win, at 22, the grail in the queen category of speed, a first for a French driver. Despite a breathtaking final – four victories in six races – Francesco Bagnaia had not managed to catch up. Such a scenario could happen again this year, even if the outcome of the duel between the two drivers seems even more uncertain.

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"A lot of points remain to be awarded and, mathematically, nothing is decided, but it is hard to see how the title could escape one of the two"says Régis Laconi, winner of the Grand Prix de Valence in 1999, and consultant for Canal+. "These are the two strong men of the paddock"confirms Jean-Michel Bayle, world champion in 125 cm3 in 1988 and in 250 cm3 in 1989, now coach of Frenchman Johann Zarco, who races for Pramac Ducati.

After a confused start to the season – five different drivers won in the first six races – the positions have settled in the world championship standings. Brilliant during the first races, the Spaniard Aleix Espargaro, on Aprilia, and the Italian Enea Bastianini of the Gresini Racing team, have returned to the ranks. As for the French Johann Zarco, he plays bad luck: each time he seems on the verge of winning a first Grand Prix victory, as in Great Britain on August 7, he ends up in the background.

After fourteen races (out of twenty), Quartararo is 30 points ahead of Bagnaia, but the latter has just taken 61 from him in two and a half months. The dynamic therefore seems to lean on the side of Bologna, stronghold of Ducati.

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Power deficit

The Italian now has six successes on the clock, three more than the Frenchman. Above all, the superiority of its engine is striking. In a straight line, the Yamaha finds itself regularly outdistanced by the Ducati. “But Fabio fights like a handsome devil, exclaims Mr. Bayle. Like a boxer in the ropes, he struggles every time to get back to the center of the ring. Even on a bad day, he manages to tear himself away to finish fifth or sixth. »

Penalized by his lack of top speed, Fabio Quartararo cannot hope for any improvement in the short term. In MotoGP, the regulations provide that each driver has seven engines for the entire season and a team cannot intervene on an engine between two races.

At his request, Yamaha has however worked a lot on the power. The Japanese team's future motorcycle, the 2023 YZR-M1, was tested for the first time at Misano in early September. Apparently conclusive tests. Enough to reinforce the optimism of the Frenchman, who signed for two more seasons with Yamaha in June, after long procrastination.

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Despite this power deficit, Christian Sarron, world champion in 250 cm3 in 1984, saw Fabio Quartararo win on the wire. “It's always frustrating to get dropped off on the straight, but Fabio is a fabulous driver. On a good day, he can win on any circuit. If he's in his head, I don't see how Francesco [Bagnaia] could catch up as many points”he said.

The Niçois, however, has no room for manoeuvre: constantly at the limit, he must get the best out of his machine in each race to stick to the Ducati, when Bagnaia can save more. A situation which is not without risk for the world champion, who fell twice at the Dutch Grand Prix on June 26, an extremely rare occurrence for him.

Especially since he can't count on a teammate to help him. “Fabio is lonely at Yamaha. No other driver from the Japanese team manages to join the fight in front », observes Mr. Bayle, who, for his part, makes the Italian his favorite. Facing "El Diablo", no less than eight riders benefit from the powerful Ducati engine. An armada that could coalesce to prevent him from obtaining a second world crown.

Disappointing innovation

But there is no point in running, you have to finish the races. To be titled in MotoGP, it is better to be a tortoise than a hare because of the points counting system. The winner of a Grand Prix scores 25, the second 20, the third 16… until the fifteenth, who scores one point. An abandonment is difficult to compensate for in the standings. Last year, Francesco Bagnaia crashed too often to beat Fabio Quartararo, the most consistent rider on the grid.

However, this year again, the Italian had a lot of trouble adapting to the new features of his machine. Presented as the main innovation in MotoGP, the “holeshot device” (“height dimmer”) flopped. Its use on the front of the Ducati made the machine difficult to ride, without its effectiveness being demonstrated.

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This system makes it possible to lower the center of gravity of the motorcycle, pinning the machine to the ground to allow the pilot to better reaccelerate when exiting a bend. In a discipline where electronic trimmers are prohibited, the idea seemed attractive, especially since the system is effective during departures. The abandonment of this complex device in the race seems however to have contributed to liberating Bagnaia.

Absent from the circuits since his right arm operation in June, the Spaniard Marc Marquez, six-time world champion, will make his return to competition at the Aragon Grand Prix on September 18, but it would be surprising if he could disturb the duel Quartararo-Bagnaia. With its long straight line, the Spanish circuit has the advantage of the Ducati. But the last five Grands Prix promise a balanced fight, and the end of the season promises to be exciting. The title could be at stake in the final race, in Valencia, Spain, on November 6.

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